September 19, 2007 4:35 pm

Human tragedy and inhuman acts

Can bimbos become Bernhardts? A gasp of consternation went out from cinemagoers on first learning that the lead role in A Mighty Heart, the screen adaptation of Mariane Pearl’s memoir of her husband Daniel’s kidnapping and killing, would be played by Angelina Jolie. Lara Croft in a reality-based political tragedy? Tinseltown’s top siren, the much-buzzed diva with the hornet-stung lips, as the widow of a beheading that set the benchmark for barbarity in an early chapter of present-day jihad?

Rest reassured. That Jolie can act is proved by this moving and modulated performance, as the woman whose husband became a casualty on the motoring map towards Middle East conflict resolution. Jolie’s French accent is a convincing start; the curly black wig and brown contact lenses help; the immersion in the role’s emotions is the clincher, an empathy possibly helped by the actress’s own friendship, preceding the film, with Mariane Pearl.

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Nigel Andrews

Michael Winterbottom (Welcome to Sarajevo , The Road to Guantanamo) is a savvy guide through the political jungle. Here he makes a virtue of information overload. Too many facts, not too few, feed this drama and its frustrations. The rumour mill, the real news, the disinformation of officials: Mariane tries to connect the dots on the chaotic wall chart in her home, but their prolixity keeps defeating her.

What is knowledge anyway? the film asks. Is it the “knowledge” of one character here, a Zionist-conspiracy theorist, that 4,000 Jews who normally worked in the Twin Towers did not turn up there on September 11? Is it the facts or half-facts gouged from men under torture (an instrument of persuasion used here by both sides)? Is it the news stories filed every day under restraints, constraints or, just as bad, the propagandist colouring of a writer and his newspaper?

Winterbottom and scenarist John Orloff resist an enactment of Daniel Pearl’s own ordeal. That would be their colouring-in of history. Instead the Wall Street Journal reporter, played by Dan Futterman, is seen mostly in flashbacks. These become poignant memory-retrievals for Mariane as she learns, scene by scene, to convert hope to realistic despair.

Could the story have been given a bigger acoustic? Should it have dared to give offence to westerners by letting the terrorists articulate, at greater length, their cause? (The Road to Guantanamo allowed Islam its say). Probably not. The world is still too young to treat Pearl’s death as anything but the inhuman act that to feeling human beings it was. The film opts to depict a single but reverberant tragedy and does so with force, skill and a memorable central performance.

Death Proof is an escaped and dangerous Tarantino action thriller. Prised from the box-office debacle that was (in America) Grindhouse, a pastiche of an old-fashioned cheapie double-bill with one feature from the Pulp Fiction master, one from Robert Rodriguez, plus an accompaniment of mock ads and trailers, this blend of girlie action flick with retro car-chase movie scores nought out of 10 for artistic expression but four for amiable delinquency.

Somewhere in the modern US, a carful of Amazonian nymphets is chased and terrorised by Kurt Russell as a fender-bending psycho. Make that two carfuls. The film’s first hour is set in Texas, with a hard-drinking quartet targeted by Russell’s Stuntman Mike, a scarred veteran of professional self-battery driving a “death-proof” car. The second hour moves to Tennessee, 14 months later, with another female foursome, this time giving Mike some of his own medication. Who will kill whom? We hardly care. But the stunt action keeps us alert. And there is minor wit in the distressed visuals: those blips, scratches and jumpy splices that will appeal to moviemanes old enough to remember late-night shows in local fleapits.

Syndromes and a Century, from Thai filmmaker Apichatpong Weerasethakul, is a far cry from Tarantino, so far that westerners may find it inaudible. Like some supernatural dog whistle, the non-sound of its artistry directs the non-actions of its plot, in which largely non-connected characters interact – or not – in two hospitals, one in the country, then one in the city.

Bewildered? But wait. Apichatpong made Tropical Malady – a miracle movie in which everyday life blended with love, mystery and jungle terror – and there is mesmerism even in this film’s cool langours. It is three things at once: a portrait of the filmmaker’s doctor parents, a set of encrypted romances (including a gay one between a Buddhist priest and a young dentist) and a meditation on place and memory. Don’t think of it as film. Think of it as a series of paintings that talk to each other, raptly and quietly.

In Evening, based on novelist Susan Minot’s 16-hankie bestseller, there is standing room only for distinguished actresses. Streep, Redgrave, Close and Eileen Atkins jostle for screen time, with Natasha Richardson, Toni Collette and Claire Danes in support.

I am against the exploitation of women for sentimental screen purposes (Steel Magnolias, Crimes of the Heart). But what can you do? Here they moon and croon across a time divide, as dying Redgrave remembers being lovelorn Danes in a Gatsbyish weekend somewhere on Great Egg, Little Egg, Addled Egg or wherever people go when they are orphans of a lost brainstorm out of F. Scott Fitzgerald. The syrupy music is nearly non-stop. The sunset glaze seems fashioned by a blowtorch. Director Lajos Koltai, promoted from Europe to Hollywood after the fine Fateless, is in danger of becoming the next Lasse Hallström.

Kenneth Branagh is in danger of becoming the next Kenneth Branagh, in a career of serial self-replication as our last unstoppable screen Shakespearean. As You Like It has the Branagh vices and virtues. In the first category: the hectic search for novelty, this time a 19th-century Japanese setting with Rosalind and company as British-imperial babes in the woods. Among the virtues are the fresh, firm verse-speaking, in which even untrained histrios (such as lead player Bryce Dallas Howard) can “have a go” and show that there are shining truths, not just tongue-twisters, in the Bardic language.

I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry is a comedy of masquerade that Shakespeare might have written if he were pea-brained and talentless and had been commissioned to script an Adam Sandler movie. Non-gay Sandler and fellow fireman Kevin James get hitched in a civil partnership – for an implausible plot reason – and we are asked to guffaw as the stereotypes of gay behaviour are wheeled into place to shore up their charade. In a scarily awful film the biggest horror comes with the appearance of the name Alexander Payne (of Sideways) among the script credits.

You could escape to a cinema showing Yella. This sounds like a Disney dog movie. Instead it is a neat metaphysical thriller – about life, death, love and identity – from a Germany coming back to life after its long post-Fassbinder coma. Filmmaker Christian Petzold could be more inventive with his visuals. Brasher colours? Bolder angles? But the plot keeps you guessing and the clever ending keeps you thinking.

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